What Did the Lahore Marathon Achieve?

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What was the big deal about the marathon, many would ask. The cynics and opponents would argue that there issues acutely more relevant for the average Pakistani than denial of ‘mixed marathons’ by the government. Issues of poverty, lack of justice, crime, unemployment and inflation are ones that negatively effect peoples’ lives. It is for these ‘priority’ issues that citizens’ groups must protest, they would argue. Many would also condemn the May 21 marathon as one promoted by westernized women signifying nothing important within the Pakistani context.

The westernization criticism is a subjective matter but it falters in the face of facts regarding Pakistan. Here millions of women , in the formal and informal sector, venture out daily in a mixed environment to earn their daily living and to pursue their respective careers. Women and men mingle freely, upholding the varied socio-cultural norms that exist across Pakistan. As for other priority matters, none is more important than the citizens standing up for their right to be protected by the State against those , both within State and society who chose to use violence to snatch away their rights.

HRCP and other NGOs were indeed forcing the State to rise above political considerations and uphold the Constitution of Pakistan insofar as the Constitution decrees that the all citizens are equal before the State and the State institutions must protect the rights of its citizens.

The first marathon organized by the HRCP was in response to the violence of religo-political groups against the mixed marathon organized in Gujranwala by the Punjab government. That symbolized civilian resistance against religo-political groups that attacked the Gujranwala marathon. Irrespective of the difference of opinion these groups may have on whether or not such a marathon should have been held in Gujranwala , they were not within their right to resort to violence. The Punjab government itself intervened, with force, to disrupt the first HRCP marathon.

Subsequently the May 21 marathon was organized by Asma Jehangir and many other organizations with support from the PPP, to show resistance against the State, the government and the religo-political power which seeks to take away the Constitutional rights of any section of society. This was the single-most significant aspect of the two marathons organized by the HRCP.

Full marks to Asma. She pulled off a necessary victory over the marathon issue. On May 21, despite the State’s initial instinct to surrender to the ‘imagined street power’ and deny the women the right to participate in the marathon, the HRCP forced the State to back away from its political expediency-driven approach; one that we saw in its dealing with the issue of the religion column in the passports. Instead of having moved in to correct the blunder of not printing the entire name of the country Islamic Republic of Pakistan on the passports, the government got cold feet and went back on its original position that religion column should not in the national passports. HRCP’s victory, however was that it forced the State to abandon it habitual political expediency and instead execute its responsibility of providing protection to a mixed marathon. Protection was needed since religio-political groups had threatened to disrupt and stop a mixed marathon.

As a principle, in any humane and ably-managed society, no State institution or section of society should use violence to snatch away the Constitutional rights of other citizens. According to the Constitution the State institutions are bound to protect the rights of its citizens by upholding the rule of law under all circumstances. Rule of law is a necessary requirement for the coherent, just and orderly functioning of society.

The State of Pakistan, beginning with the proxy war it fought in Afghanistan, gradually abandoned it responsibilities. It ceased to play the role of a credible protector of the life, property, dignity and rights of its citizens and of a reliable mediator among society’s competing interest groups and ideological groups. Indeed the State created groups with a particular ideological bent and provided State support to strengthen those groups. Sectarianism, intolerance and violence flourished within the public spaces of Pakistan; in politics, within civil society and in religious places. A narrow and literalist interpretation and understanding of religion, often backed by violence, targeted the women. The State generally found it politically expedient to promote those groups who questioned a life beyond Chadar and chaar dewaari for women. Laws like the Hadood Ordinance, with elements repugnant to the spirit and substance of Islam and to the spirit of the Constitution were promulgated.

Brave and committed women like Asma Jehangir , Shehla Zia, Nigar Ahmad, Khawar Mumtaz and many others , fought against this injustice being committed against women. They consistently pressurized the State and successive governments to end this legal injustice. What grew in the shadow of a State-sponsored distortion of Islam was what HRCP so correctly decided to resist.

The State of Pakistan has to credibly and carefully work towards establishing rule of law in the country. This is Pakistan’s principle challenge. Our home grown troubles have flowed from the collapse of law, which has flourished as the State was mutilated from the seventies onwards-in the name of political expediency and national security.

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Nasim Zehra is a Fellow at the Harvard University – Asia Center. She contributed this article to Media Monitors Network (MMN) from Massachusetts, USA.

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